Why This Filmmaker 'Trusts No One and Questions Everything'
Mads Brugger explains how 'Cold Case Hammarskjöld' went from conspiracy theory to reality.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld begins as an eccentric inquiry into what appears to be a conspiracy theory. Muckraking documentarian Mads Brugger wants to know, along with his documentary subject Goran Bjorkdahl, whether the 1961 plane-crash death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was not merely an accident, but an assassination.
At the time, Hammarskjöld was not a very popular figure among the major powers of the world. These nations -- Britain, France, and Belgium chief among them -- had a vested interest in maintaining their African colonies, which they mined for natural resources. Meanwhile, Hammarskjöld advocated for African sovereignty. When his plane went down, in a small field just miles from an airport in modern-day Zambia, the Secretary-General was on his way to the Congo, where the Soviet Union and Belgium were vying for control over a nation struggling for its independence. The conflict was bloody, and Hammarskjöld hoped to instate a ceasefire. The cause of the plane crash has never been fully explained. In its official report, the United Nations concluded that there was "persuasive evidence that the aircraft was subjected to some form of attack or threat." Zambian witnesses Brugger interviews in the film seem to corroborate this sentiment.
Over the course of the long-winded investigation, Brugger and his partner do make some headway on the Hammarskjöld case. But it's in the second half of the film that they stumble upon a lead that blows the lid off the story. While perusing documents released by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice body established at the end of the apartheid regime, Brugger and co. discover the existence of a mercenary organization, the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR). The document suggests that SAIMR, led by white supremacist Keith Maxwell, allied with the apartheid regime to facilitate the spread of AIDS in Africa under the guise of fake medical clinics in rural areas. The whistleblower responsible for these shocking claims is Alexander Jones, a former SAIMR militia member, whom Brugger snags and interview with, and who disappears shortly after filming. (While it's worth noting that a New York Times article has cautioned viewers against taking the documentary's claims at face value, no one can confirm or deny the film's second-act accusations of malfeasance.)
No Film School sat down with Brugger to discuss the seven-year process of making the documentary, how he sifts through fact, fiction, and absurdity, and more.
"As the film progressed, it moved from the realm of conspiracy theory into conspiracy reality."
No Film School: How did you originally decide to make this film about Dag Hammarskjöld?
Mads Brugger: Back in 2011, I read an article about Goran Bjorkdahl, my sidekick in the film, tracking down the remaining witnesses [to Dag's plane crash]. I initially thought it was interesting, but knowledge back then about Hammarskjold was fairly minute. I met with Goran in Denmark just to see if he was a conspiracy theorist or not. And he was, in fact, the exact opposite: a very skeptical-thinking, very clear-minded person. I'm very conscientious about conspiracy theories. They attract me, but it's an area where you have to tread carefully.
What I enjoyed initially was the megalomania in the idea of two middle-aged Scandinavian guys going on a quest to prove that the Secretary-General of the United Nations was murdered. That's kind of absurd. What can possibly go wrong? [Laughs] And that is how it began.
NFS: Did you always have the conception of turning the camera back on yourself, to include yourself in the discovery process?
Brugger: Well, in my two previous films, I am also in the films out of necessity. That is not the case here.
For starters, I wasn't sure if I should be in the film or not. I have very mixed feelings about being in my own films because it is tricky business. In Danish, we have a saying: If you stick your bum out, your temperature will get taken. So it can easily backfire. But I fairly quickly realized if there were to be any film in this mountain of research which was piling up, there would have to be a lot of narration. And then, of course, who is the narrator? So that led me to be in the film.
"I had a feeling of something very dark and sinister lurking in the shadows—that if we kept going, we would eventually learn about that."
NFS: One of the strongest narrative turns in the film is where you kind of admit to the audience, "Well, there's nothing to see here," and you're ready to give up on the investigation. And then you subsequently open the door to that third-act revelation. You brought the audience along the filmmaking ride with you.
Brugger: It has a lot to do with me being a journalist by profession, but also watching documentaries. Reading books about journalists, I have discovered that nobody likes a storyteller who is totally sure of himself or herself. But if you admit to and confess your own fallacies, shortcomings, and failures, that will make the audience cheer for you and be much more interested in what you're doing. As a narrative device, it can work really well.
But also, it was a very messy investigation with a lot of dead ends and a lot of despair. At certain points, it became a running joke [when people] asked me about how my documentary film was coming along. They were implying the filming would never finish.
But I was also looking for a film where the first part would be this messy investigation — Goran Bjorkdahl and I goofing around, looking for the smoking gun, learning, finding bits and pieces, but not really having a breakthrough. And just when you, as an audience member, are about to think, "Am I on a road to nowhere? Where's this leading?"
Then, you have the storyteller saying, "Actually, I'm not that interested in Dag Hammarskjold." That is kind of funny. And then taking the audience into the last part of the film, which in many ways becomes a horror film—I thought would be interesting.
NFS: How did you keep yourself going, knowing that this film might be a fruitless effort? At what point did you realize, "There's something else here that I have to follow?"
Brugger: That is an interesting question. I think, all along, Goran Bjorkdahl and I had a feeling of something very dark and sinister lurking in the shadows—that if we kept going, we would eventually learn about that. It was a gut feeling.
A very decisive game-changer in all of this was meeting with General Tienie Groenewald, the former head of military intelligence in South Africa. Guys like that normally don't give interviews, so meeting up with him was kind of extraordinary. But then him explaining about how he met twice with Maxwell and how Maxwell was, in Groenewald's mind, financed by and working for British Intelligence — that made me totally reconsider everything I knew and believed about Maxwell.
"Maxwell continues to be the most interesting villain I have ever encountered."
Until meeting Groenewald, I thought Maxwell was demonic but somehow also buffoonish — a clownish figure. Certainly very wild and sinister and a very shady character, but as far as I understood, he was acting alone. I thought that SAIMR, the South African Institute for Maritime Research, was possibly a figment of his imagination, that he was sitting in a basement somewhere producing these weird documents himself with this clip-art stationery. Of course, we knew about his clinics, which were extremely disturbing, but they seemed like the workings of a madman. Being actually convinced that he was an agent of British Intelligence really forced us to reboot.
Also important: Groenewald said that SAIMR was something he hadn't heard anything about. That was also really weird. I think he was saying that to lead us off the trail, a sleight of hand. But that is why we continued investigating Maxwell which led us, in the end, to the breakthrough.
Maxwell continues to be the most interesting villain I have ever encountered. For example, I found his daughter, who recently graduated from journalism school in Cape Town. She had no idea about this at all. She still thought that her father was an actual doctor, which he was not at all. He was also scamming his own family.
The most important discovery was finding a list of men who signed up to be mercenaries for SAIMR through an advertisement in a South African newspaper. But it only had their names, and tracking down these men in South Africa is enormously difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. In the end, we managed to find all the corresponding phone numbers, and that is what led us to Alexander Jones and Clive van Vuuren. That was really a breakthrough because until then no one had ever seen or heard a member of SAIMR before with face and name.
Brugger: As a journalist, you have all these fantasies about finding the whistleblower. In that sense, Alexander Jones really delivers. But we were also working on a lot of leads which turned out to be dead ends and had to be taken out of the film.
My initial edit was approximately five hours long. I also struggled with pieces of background information which I considered enormously important, but at the end of the day, had to be taken out for the sake of clarity and length and so on. When you work on something for such a long time, you have to be very careful with how you remember scenes you have shot. Maybe you recollect a scene as something fantastic and extraordinary and then, years later, when you actually get to revisit that scene, you just go, "That's a piece of shit." That is what can be very frustrating.
"I have discovered that nobody likes a storyteller who is totally sure of himself or herself."
NFS: How long did you work on the film for?
Brugger: On and off, between six and seven years.
NFS: So you were tasked with staying objective that whole time.
Brugger: Yes. At first, I was not a subscriber to the idea that Hammarskjold was assassinated. The idea that someone would assassinate the UN Secretary-General is ludicrous—it's a bit like killing off the pope. But as we went along, I became a believer, which I am today.
What really convinced me about Hammarskjold being assassinated was going to Ndola, where the plane crashed. It's in modern Zambia. Being there, meeting the black witnesses, getting a feeling of the geographical surroundings and how close to the airport the crash site is, and taking note of all the anomalies of the crash, is very convincing. So as the film progressed, it kind of moved from the realm of conspiracy theory into conspiracy reality. Suddenly, the United Nations reopened the investigation because of the new evidence available -- partly because of Goran Bjorkdahl, but also because of a British historian named Susan Williams. So what was a conspiracy, in the beginning, was not so at the end.
NFS: What would you say to people who are so quick to dismiss a conspiracy theory?
Brugger: Although many conspiracy theories are bogus and a product of pure madness, there are conspiracy theories which turn out to be true, which is important to remember. What I do appreciate about conspiracy theories is this, which should also be the credo of journalism: trust no one and question everything.